Science fiction stories are often allegories, so it's no surprise that political commentators have joined movie critics in critiquing the popular new Pixar film Wall-E. But while the ambitious, awe-inspiring animated feature has much on its mind, its underlying themes don't fit neatly on any ideological spectrum.
Set 800 years in the future, the movie paints a grim picture of an earth that has been rendered inhabitable due to pollution, horrible storms (presumably the result of global warming) and literal mountains of garbage. Although life has long since vanished, a single automated trash compactor – the title character – spends its days in a Sisyphean attempt to clean up the mess.
Over the centuries, this machine has evolved human-like qualities, including curiosity. So Wall-E collects certain objects he finds intriguing and brings them “home” to his shed – including an old copy of the movie musical “Hello, Dolly!” which inspires in him feelings of loneliness and romantic longing.
When a higher-tech robot named Eve emerges from a spaceship, Wall-E is simultaneously terrified and intrigued. As we gradually learn, she is on a mission from a huge space station which houses the remaining human being, and her job is to look for any signs of life on earth. If she spots something growing and brings it back to her superiors, they will know that the earth is once again habitable, and return to recolonize the home planet their ancestors destroyed.
Or will they? Once the film moves to the space station, we find everyone is literally fat and happy. Their days are filled with superficial pleasures supplied by the BuyNLarge conglomerate, which essentially controlled the world before the meltdown.
The humans of the future spend their days lying around on flying lounge chairs, with junk food and junk entertainment available to them at the flick of a finger.
The ship’s captain appears to be the only person for whom these pleasures do not suffice. He is bored; he wants to accomplish something. He has retained the essential human impulse to discover meaning in one’s life – a pull that has gradually been bred out of the passengers, who have essentially de-evolved over the generations.
(A great musical joke occurs when the captain finally gets off his sofa, places his foot on the floor and takes a step, thereby reclaiming an essential element of being human. We hear the Richard Strauss fanfare popularized in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which accompanied footage of apes learning how to use tools and thus taking a major evolutionary leap.)
As the Christian Science Monitornoted, certain conservative columnists have jumped on the film. One writer on the National Review Web site called it “Leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind,” while another sneered: “Nice to see that Disney and Pixar can make mega-millions off of telling us just how greedy, lazy and destructive we all are.”
On the other hand, Rod Dreher on beliefnet.com argues that the movie’s message is conservative in a deeper sense, in that it champions such traditional values as hard work and perseverance.
“As humanity became more technologically sophisticated, the film argues, (people) became ever more divorced from nature, and their own nature,” he writes. ”They developed a culture and society that was mechanistic and artificial, vs. organic and natural. Consequently, they’ve become slaves of both technology and their own base appetites, and have lost what makes them human.”
As Dreher sees it, the film “argues that rampant consumerism … is causing us to weaken our souls and bodies, and sell out our birthright of political freedom. Nobody is doing his to us; we’re doing it to ourselves.”
This debate is reminiscent of the political interpretations that were laid on another Pixar film, “The Incredibles.” That movie, you’ll recall, featured a family of superheroes who were forced to set aside their superpowers, largely because their previous feats of wonder had led to numerous lawsuits. Some on the right applauded the film as a welcome indictment of our litigious ways.
So is Pixar spewing liberal propaganda, or conservative? As is the case with most art, that is the wrong question. The subversive critique of society contained in these films goes beyond that divide and gets at something deeper and more insidious.
A recurring theme of Pixar productions is the need to resist the conformity that society inevitably encourages (or even demands) and come into your own power by discovering and developing your own unique gifts. This applies whether you’re a subdued superhero, a rat who aspires to become a French chef, or a spaceship captain who has every reason to uphold the status quo.
“Nothing ever changes on this ship,” the captain moans at one point. While the masses see that lack of change as comforting, he sees it as deadening, and it’s clear the filmmakers agree. Man, like every other species, is meant to evolve; finding our own purpose and fulfilling our potential is an integral part of that process.
Another recurring theme, which is presented with incredible beauty and delicacy in “Wall-E,” is the transforming power of love. Eve, the sophisticated robot who is searching for earthly life, has a set of orders she is programmed to obey. She does so automatically, time and time again … until she begins to develop that human quality known as empathy.
It is only then that she, like the Israeli assassin in Steven Spielberg’s masterful “Munich,” begins to question her orders. The subtext is simple and profound: Only the power of love gives one the strength to defy the pressure to conform and get back in touch with one’s basic humanity.
Of course, the human characters in “Wall-E” are programmed every bit as much as the robots. Like so many of us, they have been seduced into passivity. If the film is depressing in its bleak critique of compulsive consumerism, it is uplifting in its assertion we can snap out of that self-destructive trance. And, in the words of the Jerry Herman song that Wall-E loves, it only takes a moment.